A teaching by Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, from Sfas Emes, Parshat Vayakhel.
Take from among you gifts for the LORD; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them. Exodus 35:5
On this verse the midrash quotes the Song of Songs, “Great floods cannot quench love, nor rivers drown it”; it is as if God said “My children have made me a sanctuary of [mere] goat skins, yet I shall dwell among them” (1).
The love for and the cleaving to God that the Children of Israel received at Mount Sinai live and endure forever. But because of the sin [of the Golden Calf], they were sealed away, and the Jews could not access this hidden love (2). So after the sin, this great willingness [to build the Tabernacle] was needed, for through this offering the will and the longing for cleaving to God was brought out and made manifest, so much so that they caused the Shekhinah to dwell below (3). So the Tabernacle was called “the Sanctuary of Witness,” for it is a witness that the Shekhinah dwells among Israel.
In the time of the Tabernacle and the Temple, the Shekhinah’s dwelling was palpable. What then is the purpose of [an additional, physical] witness? Rather, it witnessed to all the generations to come that, even though God’s holiness is no longer revealed [to the same extent], nevertheless the stamp of holiness remains on the inner hearts of Israel.
This is truly a goal of the mitzvot, for the mitzvot are ways to bring forth the will and the desire [for God], as the verse says, “everyone whose heart so moves him”… Thus are the mitzvot called a candle, as in “A mitzvah is a candle, and the Torah is light,” and “The soul of man is God’s candle, seeking out the inner chambers” (4). Through the mitzvot we can raise every desire to God.
And the building of the Tabernacle was a witness to all the generations that even though sin brings separation, nevertheless it cannot extinguish love.
1) Shir HaShirim 8:7, Shemot Rabbah 49:1. 2) The phrase for hidden love, ahavah hagenuza, evokes or haganuz, “the hidden light,” the original divine light of creation that was hidden away for the righteous, drawing in my mind an unmistakable connection between God’s creation of the world out of love, and our love for God in return. This connection is bolstered by the Sfas Emes’ repeated use of the phrase mikoach el hapoel, “from potential to manifestation,” which echoes the common phrase koach hapoel banifal, “the power of the Creator in Creation,” used to describe God’s immanence in creation, and of course by the whole background of the building of the Tabernacle, with its clear parallels (found in Torah and expanded by the sages) to Creation. 3) The Shekhina is God’s (usually feminine) indwelling presence, the immanent versus the transcendent. In Exodus 29:46 the Jews were commanded to build the Tabernacle veshakhanti betocham, so that God “will dwell among them.” 4) Proverbs 6:23, 20:27